Brett Golliff

Retro Deep Dive – Penny


There is no denying that Penny Hardaway still has an emotional connection with the marketplace. As I discussed last week, Penny has not played basketball in nearly seven years and hasn’t had a signature shoe that he wore on the court in 16 years. Yet his products still sell-out to a group of consumers who likely have not seen him play in the fashion that made him worthy of the signature line he received.

So what is it that makes his product have such an emotional grasp on sneakerheads?

It could be marketing, it could be history, and it could just be hype. God knows that sells enough product these days. The real answer though, is form language.  The Penny 1 took to the market place in 1995 and was one of the first signature shoes Nike offered after the decade-long success of the Air Jordan line.

Alongside Charles Barkley, Penny was part of a plan to expand the Nike Basketball line and bring in more consumers. As shocking as it may sound, the basketball landscape in 1995 was far more competitive than it is now, where Nike owns nearly 96% of it.

What set the Penny line aside from all other Nike Basketball was its aesthetic. The Penny line was dramatically different then anything Nike was offering. In 1995, the Air Jordan line had matured to producing refined product that offered the finer things in life to the youth, and other basketball shoes were virtually exciting versions of team shoes.

So the Penny 1 came in and debuted an aesthetic that was both provocative and functional. It captured a look that was current with pop culture and pushed where basketball shoes would go. The key piece that designer Eric Avar brought to the Penny 1 was the over-molded wing that protected the lateral foot during cutting. The process to create this piece would become a form language that drove the whole direction of the line from that point on.

What many don’t see is that this piece laid the groundwork for what would become the revolutionary Foamposite. Retro Deep Dive - Penny Coming off of the massive success that the Penny 1 carved out, Nike released the Penny 2 in 1996. The 2, while aesthetically different, was fundamentally the same. It featured the same product process as the 1, but instead of protecting the forefoot, it was shaped and grew from the midsole up into the midfoot of the upper. This provided both support for the forefoot, arch, and ankle, as it organically followed the anatomical form of the foot. It also continued with Nike’s most visible Air technology at the time, a full heel bladder that was just as functional as it was fresh. Retro Deep Dive - Penny I have always believed that every third design in a line needs to be a revolution. It has to shake up what the consumer has come to know and bring new energy to the line. Just look at the Air Jordan 3 compared to the Air Jordan 1, or even the Air Jordan 11 to the Air Jordan 9. You see DNA from shoe to shoe that makes it a part of the line, but the eldest one in each instance changed the marketplace dramatically.

For Penny’s third signature, the shoe had become a bit of formula as it was just evolving from its predecessors. It was still exciting and energetic. How could it not be with that bright bold blue on every shoe? The Penny line was ready for a revolution that the 3 did not provide. While I have no factual information on it, as mentioned before, I am confident in saying that the Penny line and in particular the Penny 3, was a test bed of sorts for what would become the Foamposite. Just look at the linear growth of the line leading up to the Foamposite. The 1 featured a molded wing formed out of EVA (the material of the midsole) that ran from forefoot into the midfoot.

In the 2, that same piece was reformed and grew in size to protect the midfoot and ran the length of the midsole. In the 3, the piece became the whole front 2/3’s of the shoe and became much thinner, allowing it to form to the shoe and mold to the foot.

Then at the end of 1997, the same year as the 3, the Foamposite would drop to a fully molded piece that ran the length of the shoe and wrapped the entire shoe holistically. Thus mastering the supportive technique that was introduced on the 1 and evolved through the 3. Retro Deep Dive - Penny So while the Foamposite wasn’t an official Penny shoe, it was Penny’s signature line that made the Foamposite possible. Which gives it reason enough to be featured on his foot in that year’s playoffs. The shoe was aesthetically strong enough to stand on its own, but the success of that shoe is forever identified with Penny Hardaway. Retro Deep Dive - Penny What I think makes the Foamposite so strong — as one of Penny’s shoes — is the evolution of the form language that started on the 1. I already discussed how it evolved the manufacturing process from the 1, 2 and 3, but what the Foamposite also does is take the organic aesthetic that was created on those shoes and masters it. Those shoes featured heavily stylized organic lines that anatomically follow the shape of the foot. They provide both support and flexibility. The Foamposite used those lines to reduce weight from the fully molded form and bring a technical aesthetic to the shoe as the lines went from being charismatic to being honed in and very specific in their nature.

The aesthetic of the Foamposite brought a very serious feel to a line that was great at capturing the emotion of Penny and the youth of his fans. The Foamposite was a weapon while the Penny 1, 2 and 3 were a tool. After the Foamposite would come the Penny 4. The 4 is an odd shoe to me and symbolically represents a dark time for Penny. The form language was kind of familiar to the line, but it lacked the impact that the line had provided and completely fell flat on the information gained from the Foamposite project. The 4 ended Penny’s official signature line, much like it ended excitement of his career.

Have no fear though! You sneakerheads kept his line so popular that Nike has since created variants of his line in the form of his mascot character, Lil’ Penny, with the ½ Cent — a shoe that combines the aesthetic of the first three Penny shoes with Foamposite technology.

Then came the Rookie LWP, another Foamposite-based shoe,  inspired by various shoes Penny wore in his rookie year before he landed a signature shoe. After that came the Penny 5. His first signature shoe in thirteen years. A ground breaking moment for sneakers as it was one of the first times, outside of Converse’s Dr. J revival in the mid ’90s, that a company had created a continuation of a signature line that had been gone for over a decade.

The 5 took the form language of the Penny 1-3 and combined it with Foamposite (of course) to continue on Penny’s signature look. Even his new signature line completely bypassed the Penny 4. The Penny line was as revolutionary as it was evolutionary. It created a dominant form language that didn’t exist again until the creation of the Kobe 4, which has carried on all the way through the Kobe 9. Another signature line that Eric Avar gets the credit for.

Brett Golliff, footwear extraordinaire, is founder of, contributor for Complex, and has previously designed for New Balance. Check him out on Twitter and Instagram.